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Lebanon: NATO Option Looks Unpopular

A NATO soldier in Afghanistan (epa) The United States and Israel may see a role for NATO in Lebanon, but few others do.

BRUSSELS, July 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As the world community starts to consider if an international force should be deployed in Lebanon, attention has turned to NATO as its most likely source. The United States is amenable to the idea, as is Israel. But there is a problem. Most leading European countries appear to have ruled themselves out. So who will supply the troops?

After ambassadors from the 26 NATO countries met in Brussels on July 26, NATO spokesman James Apparthurai explicitly ruled out any NATO involvement at this stage.

NATO "is not speculating as an organization on any particular role for the alliance."

"NATO is not as an organization now waiting for a mandate from the United Nations," he said. NATO, he continued, "is not looking, not looking for this mandate" and "is not speculating as an organization on any particular role for the alliance."

Apparthurai also said there have been no political discussions within NATO about assuming a specific role in the conflict, and no military planning has taken place for it. Instead, the talks focused on humanitarian aspects of the crisis.

However, NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer appeared to leave the door open on July 26, saying that "nothing has been ruled in and nothing has been ruled out" for the alliance with regard to Lebanon

Controversial, Inappropriate, And Overstretched?

Spokesman Apparthurai added that although there are discussions ongoing within NATO countries as to if and how they wish to engage in Lebanon, there is no shared view within NATO as a whole.

Many NATO nations have, though, already declared their hands.

The French president said the alliance is seen in the region as "the armed wing of the West."

The United States appears broadly supportive of NATO involvement, although sending U.S. troops has been ruled out as too controversial.

France opposes a role for NATO. President Jacques Chirac said on July 26 that the alliance is, unfortunately, seen in the region as "the armed wing of the West," making its involvement inappropriate.

Both the United States and France have painful memories of the last time they sent troops to Lebanon, to try to stabilize the situation, in 1983. A total of 241 U.S. Marines died when their headquarters in Beirut were attacked and 58 French troops died in a separate strike, on the headquarters of a French-led multinational force. Both terror attacks were blamed on Hizballah militants, who are currently battling Israeli forces.

Germany -- another leading NATO member -- has indicated it is skeptical about sending troops, while Britain says its already extensive commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan would preclude a contribution to a possible force for Lebanon.

The Netherlands has also indicated it is overstretched, having a large contingent of troops in Afghanistan.

Other Possibilities?

British members of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (epa)

However, one NATO official privately suggested on July 26 that while NATO may not be able to mount an operation on its own, there are other possibilities. The official pointed to Afghanistan, where 25 NATO nations provide the framework for a wider coalition encompassing 37 countries. He hinted something similar may become possible in Lebanon, explicitly naming Egypt as a possible provider of troops.

An EU source told RFE/RL that some neutral EU members who are not NATO members, like Finland, Sweden and Ireland, might also participate. Italy, a NATO member, also appears to be taking the lead in the effort.

EU foreign ministers will gather in Brussels on August 1 for an extraordinary meeting on Lebanon. NATO ambassadors will also next meet on the same day.

NATO spokesman Apparthurai stressed that most issues crucial to a possible stabilization mission in Lebanon remain "wide open" -- its mandate, goals, duration, and whether parties to the conflict would give their approval.